As Didier Fassin reminds us, Michel Foucault, in his famous lecture in homage to Kant's eponym text, "What is Enlightenment?", characterized critique as a symptom of our modernity, defining it as the awareness that the current configuration of our world is contingent and arbitrary rather than necessary. This attitude toward the world is familiar to the anthropologist, who knows by experience that diverse cultures at various moments produce distinct problematizations of the questions they are confronted with: what is - somewhere, at a given time - could therefore have been different. This consciousness does not only open the way to investigating genealogies of the present but also elicits an interrogation on what has been gained and lost in this process. All social sciences share this questioning about the social construction of the world. Yet anthropology possesses a unique tool to explore it - ethnography. Fieldwork through participant observation provides a specific positioning through which the ethnographer permanently moves back and forth between inside and outside the social world he or she studies, thus developing a hybrid form of critique nourished by the agents' reflexivity and distanciation from it. As Didier Fassin will argue, this tension between internal and external critique is in fact the ethical condition of possibility of politics.
Adding another dimension to this characterization of the ethnographer’s position and the resources it offers, Philippe Descola will defend the idea that anthropology’s critical function is twofold. On the one hand, it shares with the other social sciences a capacity to analyse, contextualise and interpret common practices and discourses, thus allowing its practitioners to approach reflexively the everyday experience of social life. On the other hand, and because anthropologists, unlike other social scientists, have had a long experience of dealing with cultures based on ontological premises very different from their own, they have been in a position to look at the West with the eyes of the Rest, and thus to challenge and reform the accepted ways of understanding the life of humans propagated by two millennia and a half of Western thought.
However, according to Bruno Latour, anthropology cannot develop a critical stance so long as it does not include in its agenda the study of the industrial societies that have ‘exported’ their anthropologists to exotic places. But anthropological reflexivity has not always fed this agenda, and while Western ethnocentrism is regularly denounced there has in fact been relatively little effort to produce alternative modes of description based on truly symmetrical research objectives and methods. In fact, it is by no means certain that the very idea of a critical position can stand up to a true symmetrisation of anthropology – a challenge that will be taken up by Martin Holbraad, who will argue in defence of what he calls ‘recursive anthropology’, a strategy for redefining analytical concepts in unfamiliar ways so as to bring them in line with unfamiliar ethnographic data.
Philippe Descola, Didier Fassin, Bruno Latour and Martin Holbraad